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Object of the Month: February 2015 0 Comment(s)

Object No.: L-21
Description: Black-and-white panoramic photograph of a huge crowd and small band standing outside the Hebrew Home for the Aged. The Neo-Moorish building was the Hebrew Home for the Aged from 1925 to 1969. Text on the photograph reads: "Dedication Ceremonies at the Hebrew Home for the Aged - Nov. 29, 1925.” The property and the house in the middle-right background behind the row of cars belonged to John Yeabower (1827-1919), a mounted guard for President Abraham Lincoln. Photograph by Fenschert and Flack studio.

Building the Home

The Hebrew Home for the Aged, founded in 1910, opened its first facility in 1914. Its mission was “to provide a home where food, clothing and shelter shall be furnished free of charge to indigent aged persons of the Hebrew faith.” Most were homeless, elderly Jewish immigrants who spoke little or no English. The Hebrew Home’s first location, a townhouse at 415 M Street, NW, accommodated 10 people when it opened in 1914. A caretaker was the only fulltime staff on site. Within a few years, a long waiting list illustrated the need for a larger site with medical facilities. 

In 1922, the Hebrew Home’s board of directors announced plans to build a new, state of the art facility on Spring Road, NW. “Aunt Minnie” Goldsmith (1871-1971), Chair of the Building Fund Committee, opened a drive that, within a few weeks, raised the money necessary to start construction. The building’s future site on the former Yeabower estate was in the center of a growing Jewish community in Columbia Heights and Petworth. 

Appleton P. Clark, Jr.'s plan for a complex with the main entrance leading to synagogue, with retirement-community and hospital wings on either side. 

The Washington Post, November 22, 1925.

The new structure was meant to be a premier facility of its kind in the United States. It illustrated the ability of Washington’s Jewish community to look after some of its most vulnerable residents. Designed by local architect Harry A. Brandt, the building was described as “pure American style.” Its exterior combined maroon brick with buff limestone trim. In February 1924, a less ambitious set of plans by architect Appleton P. Clark, Jr. replaced Brandt’s initial design. Other examples of Clark’s work include the Washington Post Building, the Owl's Nest, and houses throughout D.C. 

Building commenced later that year with the laying of a corner stone for the first wing of the complex. Construction lasted for over year and was completed in late 1925.

Dedication Ceremonies

Dedication committee including Bernard Danzansky (center), “Aunt Minnie” Goldsmith (right), and Sy Hirshman (left).

Courtesy of Hebrew Home of Greater Washington

Shortly after construction began, the Building Committee started planning the building’s dedication. For weeks leading up to the event, The Washington Post covered preparations, as well as last-minute fundraising. A month before the dedication, the Building Committee held a Halloween party in the facility during the final stages of construction to raise money for furniture and supplies. 

The dedication ceremonies for the Hebrew Home for the Aged’s new facility on Spring Road were held on November 29, 1925. The festivities attracted leaders from Jewish organizations, and local and national government. A 60-member chorus comprised of members from different synagogues sang patriotic and Hebrew folk songs. Members of an American Legion post raised the colors, and Maryland Congressional Representative Fred N. Zihlman, chairman of the House District Committee, closed the dedication ceremonies. Following the dedication, the Ladies' Auxiliary of the Hebrew Home held a two-day housewarming in the building.

Couple reading in a sitting room (left), 1931, and a Social Hall (right), 1930.

Courtesy of Hebrew Home of Greater Washington

The new building included sun porches and balconies, sitting rooms and a social hall, and recreation rooms. Decorations identified the Jewish character of the building: six-pointed “Jewish” star motifs ringed the building between the second and third floors, similar star windows were prominent on the penthouse level, and Hebrew was visible on the building’s cornerstone.

Hebrew Home for the Aged, 1967.

Courtesy of Historical Society of Washington, D.C.

As Washington’s Jewish community grew in the 1930s and 1940s, so too did the number of elderly Jews who needed assistance from the Hebrew Home. By 1950, the facility had become overcrowded, with some residents sleeping in hallways and enclosed porches. Additionally, many residents required more sophisticated nursing and hospital facilities. In 1953, an addition significantly increased capacity and added a nursing home section, medical facilities, a chapel and synagogue, and additional recreational areas. Designed by architect William St. Cyr Barrington, the addition emulated the earlier building’s materials and style. 

The recessed penthouse level led to an outer patio area overlooking the neighborhood. On either side of the doorways are six-pointed “Jewish” star windows, exterior at left in 2005 and interior center in 2015. Because of overcrowding in the late 1960s, the penthouse was used as a ward, seen at right in 1965.

Left photo by Jeremy Goldberg; Center and right photos: Hebrew Home of Greater Washington.

In spite of the added space and services, the addition was unable to meet the needs the community’s needs. A new facility was built outside of D.C., in Rockville, MD, adjacent to the newly-constructed Jewish Community Center and Jewish Social Service Agency buildings. That building opened in 1969, renamed the Hebrew Home of Greater Washington. The DC National Guard and American Red Cross were among the teams that helped move residents to the new facility. 

The Spring Road property was sold to the District of Columbia, which converted the property into a community health center. After years of deferred maintenance, the building became dilapidated and closed in 2009.

A New Phase

Since 2009, neighborhood residents and city officials debated plans for the building, including a homeless shelter, senior housing, and condos. In 2014, the site was added to the D.C. Inventory of Historic Sites and the National Register of Historic Places. At the same time, D.C.’s government finalized plans to redevelop the site, preserving the existing structure, while constructing an addition. Once completed, the building will be a mix of market-rate and affordable housing.  

In February 2015, JHSGW staff toured the current, derelict building to identify artifacts from its time as a Hebrew Home for the Aged. While renovations in the 1970s and later erased most of the building’s original details, we did note some vestiges from the past.  

Above: Transom over original entrance with “Hebrew Home for the Aged” (1956)
Below: The engraved words are visible below layer of stucco (2015)

Top photo: Courtesy of Hebrew Home of Greater Washington

Original ceiling and crown moldings in social hall were hidden for years above a drop ceiling.


Terracotta six-pointed “Jewish” star on building’s façade. 

Cornerstone with Hebrew and English, partially covered by stucco.  


This Object of the Month is dedicated to the memory of Laurie England.
A great-granddaughter of “Aunt Minnie” Goldsmith, Laurie had a keen interest in local Jewish history and was a generous supporter of our Object of the Month series.


We are grateful for the assistance from Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Kent Boese, and Michelle J. Chin and Stephen Campbell of the D.C. Department of General Services in facilitating our tour of the former Hebrew Home building on Spring Street, NW.

100 Years of Jewish Community Life 0 Comment(s)

Last week, the Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington held its annual meeting and celebrated its 100th anniversary. JHSGW Executive Director Laura Apelbaum spoke at the meeting and recounted a few highlights from the last 100 years of JCC history. Here are some excerpts from her talk:

Among the most treasured objects in our archival collections are 34 scrapbooks documenting the JCC from the 1920s into the 1980s. Each scrapbook is filled with invitations, programs, flyers, and newsclippings, creating a wonderfully colorful and rich compendium of the Center’s activities and our community's history.

Opening the first scrapbook page, we find a photograph of a 3-story brick townhouse at 415 M Street, NW. One hundred years ago, young Jewish men and women wanted to create a place for social interaction, cultural activities, and athletics. They formed the Young Men's and Young Women's Hebrew Associations - predecessors to today's JCC. In 1913, the YMHA purchased this home as their headquarters. They fielded baseball, tennis, and bowling teams, went on picnics and beach trips, held debates and dances, and raised funds for Jewish overseas relief during World War I. In 1914, they sold the building to the newly formed Hebrew Home and moved into other rented facilities.

The next scrapbook opens to a panoramic photograph of President Calvin Coolidge speaking to a crowd assembled at the corner of 16th and Q for the cornerstone laying ceremony of the JCC's new building. The national Jewish Welfare Board provided an initial $50,000, while developer Morris Cafritz and Jewish leader Joseph Wilner led the $500,000 building campaign.  In his speech, Coolidge remarked "Hebraic mortar cemented the foundations of American democracy."

Another scrapbook reveals a photograph of young men in uniform dancing cheek to cheek with young women in the JCC's gym during World War II. The Center’s policy "Your uniform is your admission" made the JCC the central place to meet and socialize for Jewish servicemen and women stationed in Washington. Young women called "government girls" were flocking to DC to work in war agencies, and a JCC room registry helped them find housing in Jewish homes that provided kosher meals.

As the Jewish community grew in postwar years and began moving north and west into the suburbs, many Jewish communal organizations and synagogues followed. Turning the page, we find a smiling Charles E. Smith holding a ceremonial shovel alongside the youngest student at the JCC's nursery school and the oldest resident of the Hebrew Home at the 1967 groundbreaking for the new Rockville facility on Montrose Road.

The JCC's history showcases our community's unique relationship as the nation’s capital where presidents attend holiday events and groundbreakings. At the same time, the JCC holds many personal connections and has played a central part in the lives of many families for the past century.

What are your memories from the JCC?